Suddenly, women’s voices are everywhere in the independence debate. And about time too.
Recently, Carol Fox, who after a lifetime of voting Labour, is a feminist and small business woman, running her own law firm specialising in equality rights which has been fighting for equal pay settlements for women from local authorities for years now, “came out” and announced she’d be voting Yes. Earlier this week, she owned a debate on Newsnight Scotland about women’s attitudes to voting yes. Watch, and feel the depth and strength of her anger, mainly at the party she has belonged to much of her life, at – as she sees it – Labour’s betrayal of Scottish women who have not very much. Key for her is that actions speak louder than words: making change happen is at the heart of her own personal decision to vote yes. Waiting for change to happen – for Labour-run councils do the honourable thing and make good on equal pay settlements – is no longer an option, in her view.
And I was delighted to read that Sara Sheridan, having embarked on a journey of discovery and research to reach an informed decision on how to vote in the referendum, has concluded that she will be voting yes. She has travelled from being an instinctive No voter to undecided and now to yes. Why? “What I’ve discovered about myself is that I want change. That’s the catalyst for my decision. It’s my most important voting issue. For me this isn’t an argument about sterling or the NHS (although both those things are important to me as well) But at base, for me this referendum is an opportunity to leave a corrupt and hopeless system… I want a shot at doing things differently and at having my vote make a difference, which up until now it never ever has. I’ve chatted to No campaigners who say change is possible within the current system but without a yes vote I just don’t believe that enough change will ever happen to satisfy my appetite...”
And it’s not just women.
One of the patterns discernible in the road to the referendum is the role that change as a concept and an aspiration is playing for those whose destination is yes but who might not have started from there.
The huge numbers of entrepreneurial men and women who run their own business joining Business for Scotland are testament to this. Prepared to listen to the arguments, to weigh up the facts and rely on their instincts and judgements to form an opinion, as Sara Sheridan did, everyday more join this part of the Yes movement. Contrast this with those who are appointed to head up the oil-tankers of the business world, whose enterprises get a good deal out of the current set-up in terms of the tax regime, financial services and employment law, who are lining up to plead for the status quo and steady as she goes. They form a veritable poor man’s preservation society.
At the same time, in Scotland’s third sector, there is a definite sense of, if not quite being prepared to come out as cheerleaders, they appear to be people who are extremely relaxed about the prospect of a different future. In this sector, more than any other, change is a constant in their everyday lives, with charities and voluntary organisations having to shape shift to suit funding mechanisms and policy priorities. Indeed, many third sector organisations are created precisely to bring about fundamental and sustainable change, whatever the cause. You can see why then, that people attracted to work for these causes, understand the power and purpose of change.
And then there are individuals who have committed their lives to making change happen within the current democratic and policy frameworks. One of the most interesting, recent declarations for Yes for me was one which was largely ignored or met with a shrug of the shoulders by commentators. Yet, I find his – and others like him – conversion to Yes fascinating. Phil Hanlon is a leading public health official, now Professor of Public Health at Glasgow University. For much of his working life, he has devoted his efforts to tackling inequality in health outcomes. He has researched, written and practised. He has piloted, lobbied and pleaded. He has navigated the current environment, making the case, finding success along the way, but always baby steps. And his conclusion is that having tried his best to bend the current system to his will, his knowledge and his skills, the best hope for reducing inequality lies with independence, for independence will provide better opportunities to make Scotland’s people healthier.
There is no doubt he is influenced by his own personal predilections – the clue is in the nod to a left-leaning approach to tax, fairness and equality. But essentially, it would appear that having weighed up the prospects for an issue he has devoted his working life to and on which he knows a lot, a Yes vote offers the better prospects. How refreshing: evidence-based yes-forming.
Yet, it is clear that many are not quite ready to embrace Yes as a catalyst for change. Indeed, for some, the very idea of the sort of change that independence represents, is exactly why some are voting no. And women form a fairly critical mass in the adverse to change camp. Polling runes are borne out by experience – mine, at least – on the doorstep. Women, particularly older women nearing or over retirement age, are implacably and firmly voting No. Ask them why and one was honest enough to admit, “I just don’t like change“.
But women are also engaged. I’ve enabled and supported young women, from traditionally marginalised communities, to register to vote for the first time ever. Because they are determined to make their voice heard and for their view to count towards their future. For the first time, they feel they have something to vote for – an opportunity for change.
And I’ve also listened to undecided women’s concerns and questions – often, they’re my age, women in-betweeners who are the living embodiment of the sandwich generation. The most exciting thing about listening to and blethering with them is that they are engaged in a way I’ve never known in 20 plus years of campaigning for elections. Only a fool would mistake indecision for indifference. These women are simply – as Sara did – weighing it all up, considering it carefully, looking for unbiased information, having chats with family, friends and work colleagues before deciding how to vote. It’s invigorating to witness and a privilege to be involved.
Considering all of this instils in me a confidence that not only will Scotland vote yes for independence but that a majority of women aged 25 to 54 will also eventually journey to Yes. Why? Because these women are the changemakers, in their communities, in their families and also of their generation.
These are women who have broken through society’s ceilings. Many were the first women in their families to go to university; they are working in careers that were not open to their mothers and grandmothers; they might be the first to have initiated divorce and also to re-marry; some will have been much more open about their sexuality, confident enough to form stable and loving relationships with other women; they will often have lived in different parts of the country, if not the world, moving many times, getting to grips with managing their own money and finances. All through their lives they will not only have coped with change but embraced it and the possibilities it has offered. Certainly, there’s an element of change fatigue, of wanting things to settle and slow down, the older you get.
But when it comes to the crux, when the time comes for them to decide yes or no, most will choose yes. Of this I have no doubt. Because if not for themselves, they will do so for the next generation who need change, wholesale change in our culture, society and economy, if they are to fulfil the aspirations we all have for them.
And there are three things all of us who want Scotland to vote Yes in September need to do. First, it is to reinforce that the choice is not between change and no change. The choice is between making change happen and being in control of what that change looks like and results in, and things changing for the worse. Stay as we are, part of a UK, subject to government by parties increasingly devoid of political ideas to make our lives better and we will get change we did not vote for nor want, over which we have no control nor say. Weigh up the risk and voting no presents a bigger one.
Second, change won’t happen overnight. For a while, things will largely stay the same but we will have the opportunity to have our say on our priorities for change. If women vote yes, they can push for the change they want most for themselves – better childcare, fairer tax, equal pay, more representative government and boardrooms, better careers, decent pensions – and prioritise these into palatable chunks.
And third, we must encourage the undecideds to think hard. Who do you trust to make the right decisions for you and your families? Others, as they have done for all of our lives, far away from where we live? Or ourselves, and everyone all around us? Who knows us best and knows what we need to change and how? If change is to be progressive – the right sort of change at the right time – who can we trust to make that happen? Them or us.
In the last steps of our journey, we need to hear more from the changemakers, the people who have embraced the idea of change and who want to see and make change happen. And key voices are those like Carol Fox, Sara Sheridan and Phil Hanlon – people who began their journey someplace else but who have arrived at Yes. For these changemakers are not only voting Yes, but they can persuade more Scots and indeed, more Scottish women, to vote Yes too.
What I’ve discovered about myself is that I want change. That’s the catalyst for my decision. It’s my most important voting issue. For me this isn’t an argument about sterling or the NHS (although both those things are important to me as well) But at base, for me this referendum is an opportunity to leave a corrupt and hopeless system – the kind of political environment where Labour MSPs vote against free school meals for primary 1-3s just to spite the opposition or where a woman who inadvertently (we hope) takes over £45K of public money yet doesn’t feel the need to pay it back when the error is uncovered, or where UKIP can gain a hold over many English constituencies because people are so desperate for some kind of authenticity – no matter how abhorrent. I want a shot at doing things differently and at having my vote make a difference, which up until now it never ever has.
I’ve chatted to No campaigners who say change is possible within the current system but without a yes vote I just don’t believe that enough change will ever happen to satisfy my appetite.